It’s well past ten pm, and in the darkly lit upstairs room of the Moose Lodge in Moscow, Idaho, Claudia Stubblemeyer is taking a selfie. A tiny black hat sits atop her gleaming auburn hair, swooping lip line as salacious as ever, her eyes framed in black fans of fake eyelashes and glowing through unnaturally blue contacts. She stands in a spotlight manned from across the room, surrounded by a crowd of eager college students, many seated on the hardwood floor, some in the chairs that line the bar section. A cheetah pattern bra and the black faux fur of a belly shirt frame her plastic cleavage. The opening to her song has set off a surge of cheers and laughter. “Did you think that girl was pretty? How did that girl even get in here? Did you see her? She’s so short and that dress is so tacky.” She lip syncs the voice of a sneering club girl as a techno beat accelerates. “After we go to the bathroom, can we go smoke a cigarette? I really need one. But first, LET ME TAKE A SELFIE.” The beat drops to a bouncy, surging rhythm and Claudia struts down the aisle that splits the crowd, smiling into her smart phone camera and swinging her narrow hips as the crowd begins to clap along. Some hands jut out into the aisle holding dollar bills, the customary tip, as she passes. I’m in the back on the floor, behind the spotlight operator’s stool, with a few dollars folded and tucked into my shoe for when my favorites come out.
Drags shows have become a regular part of my life. They mean feeling at home in the lair of an underground family, sitting in the dark while these costumed people come out into the light; even the characters know what they are, jokes slip out about the hidden male genitals, but they are still real in a way and it’s fascinating. The queens run the gamut from the most ironically burly to the most convincing illusions; the kings are often only identifiable as women by faint hip-swells and a high speaking voice. Most drag performers lip sync, and dancing, from popping and locking to cartwheels in stilettos, often plays a big enough role to suggest hours of practice. Not all are charmed by this art; some regard it from a stance of misunderstanding or disgust, or even sheer puzzlement. For those who find their place in some aspect of this community, however, the dedication can be lifelong.
“Drag”: the word makes you think of a cigarette, a bawdy laugh, an old aunt with dyed hair and a loose tongue. In the old days of Shakespearean theater, this most hetero-subversive practice arose from the traditional sexism – women never graced the stage. Men wore the wigs and the makeup, played the girls of the doomed couples and roiling love triangles, they wore the gratuitous skirts that would drag behind them on the floor; forever lost to history are the hearts of those who enjoyed it. In the drag of today, a form more sincere in the purpose to express, the mysterious line between character and truth is central to the spectator’s experience, as well as the performers’. I quite like not knowing anything about the men behind the women, the women behind the men, except for what I can glimpse through the makeup under the spotlight. It is more than theater, it is release; more than mockery, it is expression. The realization of unspoken selves, the celebration of misfits.
The host of this scene has been, for nineteen years, TabiKat Productions. The owners, Kathy Sprague and Tabitha Simmons, have become adoptive parents to the local sexually alternative community; they regularly hold “Drag 101” sessions, during which those who desire to perform will be instructed in stage etiquette and, for the drag kings, the value of a good quality rubber penis for crotch stuffing. Even in this artsy university town, a rare liberal haven in rural Idaho, characterized largely by chic cafes and earthy spring festivals, TabiKat exists as a cultural oasis. Kathy can be recognized by her wide smile, which once a month is overshadowed by the blond mustache of her surly alter ego, Bill Pfister. Tabitha is a more invisible and ubiquitous presence at the shows, presiding always above the stage as God, the sovereign DJ, her face illuminated during the dancing hours by the glow of her laptop screen.
Claudia, the “foul-mouthed redhead”, acts as host alongside the ditzy and voluptuous brunette, Aquasha Delusty. Both are staples in the regular show lineup; Claudia often opts for the comical and explicitly sexual – her song choices frequently feature the boozy voice of a promiscuous woman, or unmistakable references to anal sex. Aquasha, a well established local hairdresser in life, pulls magic from her costume closet and makeup palette; where Claudia typically embodies the humor associated with drag queens, Aquasha provides dazzling spectacle, her ensembles often falling somewhere between princess glam and retro high fashion. A former Miss Gay Idaho, she wears the love of her craft like a pair of gaudy rhinestone earrings; her high-heeled strut has been perfected to a virtuosic level, her theatrical pop choreography leaves no uncertainty of the years that have developed her leg muscles, and her body is kept surprisingly soft, as seems to be typical of some long-time queens; she has small hands, round arms, and a seemingly real chest. I have not met Gordon, the person behind Aquasha, but I glimpsed him once in public, recognizing a glimmer of resemblance to Aquasha’s heart-shaped mouth and deep-set blue eyes; in the few seconds that I kept my eyes on him, I saw a regular person, obviously a man, with a bit of stubble and dressed in the subdued colors of the everyday. I know, however, from the context of a parallel world, that within that person sparks something impossible to overlook.
In matters of outreach, Miss Pretty has set herself to work; everyone knows the plus-size, gregarious blonde and TabiKat ambassador who takes the photographs, whirling about the crowd with her camera and her talent for snapping at just the right moments, greeting new arrivals, and drawing out loners. On Facebook she has archived thousands of photos, where every performance exists in fragmented moments, and where people tag themselves on the dance floor or in the audience.
These are a few of the people who represent TabiKat; performers come and go, sometimes visiting from neighboring cities, sometimes only lasting for a show or two, but many have made their home in this corner of the alternative gender world.
Francesca – her real name is Richard. They both have blonde hair, and Richard’s shyness translates into Francesca’s demureness. As a new queen, Richard has just begun to come into his own; he first created Richelle Lula Belle, a coy brunette, but replaced her with Francesca, joining the maternal name-line of DeLusty. A talented make-up artist, he transforms his wide set blue eyes and broad smile into the features of a bold fatale, and when draped with a flowing gown his athletic frame becomes statuesque. Each performer’s relationship to drag can be different – unlike the raunchy, ironic Claudia, known for her unabashed displays of fake cleavage, Richard wears Francesca with a touching sincerity; no dirty secret lies behind her smile, only a delicate innocence. He once told me after a performance that the admiration he finds on the stage doesn’t follow him home to his family; quoth his mother, “You look beautiful, but what you do makes me sick.” He doesn’t mind being a man, but that night he said that when he is Francesca, “everything feels okay.”
Johnny, also known as Krystal, or Krys, is not a woman on the inside; he smokes and struts when he’s not on stage. At the unknowing glance, Krys is easily a boy, but certain other features quickly confuse that impression. The first time I saw him, a coworker at a home for the disabled, I had been struck by the uncommon cocktail of his persona; a girl’s deliberately deepened voice, a slightly feminine, albeit stocky shape under men’s clothes, a tattoo of Michael Jackson on one forearm, a square jaw and short-cropped blonde hair. I soon developed a confusing crush, which I’ve since given up the need to define. His bravado surfaces easily in the form of a quickness to confrontation, his watery blue eyes harbor an almost bloodshot intensity, perhaps necessary compensations to defend his claim to masculinity. I’ve wondered if he ever gets into fights.
In a culture that continually sees the disintegration of traditional gender roles, to the dismay of some, the resurrection of the old time masculine and feminine can be found in an odd place – the world of the drag show. The coif and the brawling in the parking lot by the old Rolls Royce, the swooning innocence and the cinched curves, the teasing legs and the proud cleavage, the emergence of a woman from beneath a posed trembling shyness; come here, all of that lives in this place, everything you were told growing up that a man should be, a woman should be.
I sit on the floor with folded legs and smiling, as the spotlight follows the performers’ swagger or prance down the aisle. I let my voice blend in a unified squeal when Johnny takes his shirt off, revealing lightly muscled and tattooed arms and a white tank top, the chest flattened with a hidden band; I cheer with real joy when Francesca’s number ends and she gazes out over the crowd with that genuine, starry-eyed smile. I’m hooked, I go every month; I’ve bought a boy’s vest and I’ve practiced the rapper hand motions in the bathroom mirror, smirked at my own reflection, the sideburns and thick brows of eye shadow, I’ve wondered about the difference between handsome and beautiful, I’ve walked to campus in the sun in my hip hugging jeans and skater shoes and thought maybe I should try strutting.
A Marilyn Monroe poster hovers above the bed in my white walled bedroom; everyday as I leave for work or class my eyes flick over the half-lit smile, the ethereal golden curls, and I read the words printed in cursive beside her image: “I’m not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful.” Her face pops up on my T-shirts and beams out from various walls of my apartment, her quotes sometimes surface in my mind: “‘Beneath the makeup and behind the smile, I am just a girl who wishes for the world…..I have too many fantasies to be a housewife. I guess I am a fantasy…” As a little girl I knew her face and name from photos hung on restaurant walls; as a teen I began copying her likeness into my sketchbooks. I knew her face so well that I experienced a shocked curiosity to realize she was a screen actress as well as a model; I could only think of her as the face that is imprinted in my mind. I could scarcely imagine what such an immortal, exquisitely constructed face could look like living and breathing. Indeed, I would learn from one of the countless documentaries about her that she loved to be photographed, but feared being filmed – more specifically, she feared being recorded speaking, captured in the honesty of motion rather than the safety of a well-practiced posture.
Now, when I think of her, I think of the scene from her film Niagara in which she lounges on a porch and sings along with a nearby band; a bit of wind just barely plays with her blonde curls as she releases her famously breathy coo of a singing voice, animating with no small amount of effortful affectation her elegant features – a wistfully raised eyebrow, an ever-smiling mouth — as though she were a pose in motion. “…..take me, take me in your arms, make my life perfection…..” At the word perfection, she closes her eyes and her cherry lips frame glowing white teeth, a flawless pantomime of female ideality.
Miss Pretty, also known as Tina, has found her incarnation in the blondness and the lipstick, the wiggles and the waves. True to her retrophile reputation, she loves to deck out her ample curves in the florals and veils of decades past, and while she often evokes a punk or metal aesthetic, the joyful girlishness of her grin pays unmistakable homage to Marilyn. Tina is a bio-queen, the less common performer who has, underneath the caricature, the physical identity of a woman. Her stage name echoes with the desire that so often undercuts the mockery of drag: the desire to be desired. The bio queen wears her mask with as much irony as her counterparts, and is a reminder that to perform drag is not to fake the qualities of a sex, but to mock the construct of a gender. As with many performers, always from underneath her satirically large eyelashes and coquettish poses peaks a sincere glow. Pretty. Perfect. “I don’t mind living in a man’s world, “Marilyn said, “as long as I can be a woman in it.”
At about 4:30pm on a Monday, I walk through the door of my apartment, blandly expressionless, and lock it behind me, heading to the kitchen to hang my book bag on a chair. I throw off my jacket, but as has become a habit of late, I leave my headphones on and my IPod blasting. “You knock me off of my feet, now baby!” Michael Jackson shouts into my head. I spin to face the mirror leaning against my armchair. I see a skinny girl with pixie short hair and glasses, pink pants, and black sneakers. “WHOOOO!” I turn my knees in and point to the ceiling, watching my reflection with a mixture of bemusement and satisfaction. I am Marty. Marty SoFly.
“Hey pretty baby with the high heels on, you give me fever like I’ve never, ever known.….” I snap my fingers and walk about amongst an imaginary audience seated on my living room floor, bobbing my head and trying to smirk lustfully. Audience interaction is important, so I single out an invisible girl, wiggling my crotch at her; I imagine a female body in front of me and look her up and down with a flirtatious eyebrow twitch. It comes with surprising ease. This new feeling has become a thread that runs through me – the attitude of a hunter.
The beat is clean and hard enough that it’s easier than with more sensual songs to resist rotating my hips and wiggling my shoulders in the enticing manner developed over two years of club dancing; the shift of aura has become easier and more seamless, the dance of head and upper body more innate. On this side of the sexual game, I’m not trying to attract – I’m trying to catch. “I feel your fever from miles around, I’ll pick you up in my car and we’ll paint this town….” I attempt to execute a moonwalk across my floor, and can’t help but snicker as my feet drag on the carpet and my knees jerk ungracefully.
“You’ll never be able to convince anybody that you’re a boy.” My boyfriend had laughed at me one afternoon as he looked at the scrawny shoulders under my plaid button up, and I had wrinkled my nose at him. I don’t necessarily expect such success; I wish only to convince the audience that the soul of a boy is spinning and gyrating amongst them. “You knock me off my feet, my lonely days are gone…” I throw out my chest and stand before the mirror, trying to seethe with intensity and pretending to pant from the exertion of my clumsy dance routine. Marty. Yeah.
“At first, I just started because I thought it looked fun.” My friend Cody, wearing a black fedora, fake crucifix, and a hint of eyeliner, chatted with me one afternoon over a smoothie, as we perched at a window seat in a local cyber safe. “But then, something happened. Missbee Haven turned into this whole different person.” He speaks with a high voice and has a loud, frequent guffaw, but often mirrors my posture unconsciously – crossed legs, a hand rested on his chin – an endearing expression of insecurity. “She’s really outgoing and confident and wild, and that’s not me. I’m shy and awkward. I mean she is me, but she’s this other part. It just happens.” His character has become well known for her fierce costumes and high energy dance moves; recently, donning a flame red wig and black lipstick, he elicited fervid applause with his unfettered performance to Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People.
I have become interested in this emergence, this spontaneous birth of character; on the days that I spend ten minutes or so dancing about as Marty, I aim to strike notes in that peculiar in-between, the sex appeal of the pretty boy, the boyish girl, and wait for sparks from within. I know that when I finally step out into the spotlight and look into the faces of those watching me, everything will be different. I know from my mortifying high school experience of freezing and stumbling through a Junior Miss pageant what happens onstage; when being seen so intensely, one’s body weighs and moves differently, as though it has been rewired; existing in the gaze of others makes one naked and hyper-aware, more in the body, more honest, than anywhere else. Every move feels like a confession. Herein lies that which motivates all performers – the desire to move confidently in that place and be received with acceptance and admiration. In drag, the added complexity is that the spotlight often shines on something that goes beyond act, something so true as to exist most of the time in the darkness of secret; in the hyperreality of drag, this acceptance sometimes cannot be found elsewhere. In my living room after late day classes, dancing around with lighthearted abandon, I am far from the forces that have for so long kept such secrets in the dark.
On June 28, 1969, a drag queen of unknown identity smashed the window of a police car with her handbag. All around her, the still dark early morning street in the New York province of Greenwich Village had exploded into a blaze of jubilance and violence. In those days, public cross-dressing was illegal; the ancestors of Francesca and Claudia were used to the lights inside the Stonewall Inn switching on as the whisper of “Betty Badge” rippled through the crowd of drinkers and dancers, and preparing to be lined up for the routine frisking and checking of genitals as the bar and its store of alcohol was raided. This would be the day, however, when the collective patience snapped; the customers began to resist, and a rowdy audience gathered outside as a few offenders were wrangled into squad cars. A few of the arrested escaped. The unsuspecting police found themselves trapped in a jungle of broken glass and raucous, chanting cross-dressers; the small, dirty club that less than an hour before had been a haven for sexual outcasts in New York became a prison for the police, who barricaded themselves inside. By the time their backup had arrived to quell the uproar, the Inn’s interior had just begun to crackle with fire from a torch and gasoline tossed through a window. I can only imagine the fear on their faces as all the force that had been seething beneath the many years of deference to oppression came screaming at them.
One can’t get inside gender without confronting the idea of power. The revolutionary patterns of history reveal a tendency of suppressive regimes to promote certain roles as innate – the politically muted housewife, the childlike and subservient Negro, the stoic and dominate husband. Always ironic are the opposing forces that arise: fear for the status quo, anger from the rebels. Such is the anger, that of nature suppressed, that spurred the slave-led massacres of white men in the days leading to the U.S. Civil War, that set fire to the Stonewall in the 60s. No natural order need be enforced, for inevitably it rises violently to the surface.
From the inside of the Moscow drag show crowd, I sometimes forget the rest of the world; from my spot on the floor, amiably close to strangers with pink hair and pierced eyebrows, it is easy to imagine that nothing awaits these people but more friends and smiling faces, understanding and appreciation. I’m reminded, though, of the need for such places as what Tabikat provides. A friend responds to my invitation to join me at a show with puzzlement and reluctance, a gay waiter at a local pie restaurant hops from table to table dutifully, his eyes sensitive to every micro-expression of his customers, ready to find suspicion or stony criticism. Gordon, who has put fourteen years into creating the head-turning confidence of Aquasha, when commuting to shows in unfamiliar towns will often conceal the brightly colored costume with sunglasses and a hoodie. “Smart drag artists,” she says, “are very aware of their surroundings and know how to keep themselves safe.” This world I’ve come to know is not yet fully understood outside the shadows of the underground.
No one but me knows Marty yet; the closest he has come to existing outside of my living room was the day I ventured out with his hooded vest and a tough expression, driving to the dollar store for a pack of burritos. At the end of my trip from the freezer to the cash register, the cashier’s polite, “How are you,” turned my machismo into awkwardness, and my responding, “Helloooo…” came out unnecessarily high-pitched, even for a girl. Daniel Harris, a marginally successful writer and less successful drag queen, related his frustration thusly, in Diary of a Drag Queen: “I have never felt more myself than when I am in drag, more conscious of the truth than when I am lying. To erase oneself is to know oneself….”
I’ve begun to realize that one needn’t pay eight dollars every month to watch the Tabikat show; drag acts can be seen everywhere. The svelte sorority girl at the gym who pants and burns at her elliptical as Sex and the City flashes across its built- in screen, the bright-eyed young man executing effortful bicep curls on the weight lifting floor, the hefty older man in bike shorts sweating and lumbering his way around the track; they are no less dedicated than the woman who glues hair clippings to her face and paints on abs, or the man who buys seventy dollar wigs and wears band-aids over the blisters from his pumps. Some acts are more successful than others; sometimes the spray tan turns out too orange, or all the attempts to perfect an appropriate swagger cannot mask a sway in the hips. No one, however, looks at what images remain of Marilyn Monroe and sees the rhinoplasty scars or roots of dark hair that belonged to Norma Jean.
Such awareness brings uncertainty. The language of gender, designed to resolve ambiguities and define desires, and thus motives, can be equally as deceptive in drag as in life. No two do drag for the same reason; for me, it is fascination, for Richard, acceptance, for Krys, perhaps just to get tips for being himself. Some performers are straight, some are simply gay, some truly wish to become what they parody; none of these differences are apparent from looking. To encounter such unpredictability is disconcerting, causes a destabilization of expectations that translates into the world beyond the drag show. One can wear lipstick as an act of desire or an act of deference; a dress can deceive or reveal.
I am beginning to find tremendous comfort in the knowledge that such subversive identities are real, that the substance of a man or woman can exist separately from the bounds of physical form. Perhaps one should find it surprising that so many who are repulsed by this notion claim to defend that which is holy, truthful, and spiritually pure. I can’t think of anything more exemplary of these things than such a conviction of inner self as to withstand rejection and persecution, lifelong pressure to be something different. To understand such an irrepressible sense of identity, I need only to shop for groceries while trying to convince the public that I’m a boy.
Nevertheless, in matters of gender nuance pervades; I have no word for the sex appeal that drag kings can have to straight girls, or for the reason that I admire in my boyfriend the soft, like his skin, or the gentle, like his hands, even as I am attracted to that which is forward and dominating in Krys. The absolute finality of words eventually fails to do justice to the scope of human sexual capacity. I know that, however unconvincing a boy I may as yet be, Marty exists as a very real possibility of new embodiment; to move and speak and dress as a boy, I cannot hide behind the charm of hips and waist and lipstick. The phrase “unsure of oneself” means just that: to doubt the worth and authenticity of one’s own existence. As an acne terrorized teenage trying to feel her own feet as she walked across that high school auditorium stage in cheap high heels and a blue gown, caring more about knowing how to simply walk than what it meant to be a “Junior Miss”, I experienced the height of such doubt. I have since learned how to balance myself in heels and to smile for pictures, but like many women I’ve gained confidence through my adeptness at wearing a mask; while Marty will require a mask of his own, I hope that eventually he will no longer be a reminder of what I am not, but a way of channeling self-possession that does not rely upon my usual instruments of feminine sex appeal.
For the TabiKat shows, dancing is as much a part of the experience as watching the performers. Each hour- long set of performances ends with the lights dimmed and Claudia’s voice over the speakers, “Now get up and dance!” Down the block, the local Cadillac Jack’s venue houses the horny bodies of drunk college students as they grind their way to one night stands; at the shows, people tend to dance for fun rather than sexual goals . Towards the end, most of the crowd has left, but a small group always stays until the last song, and I am invariably among them.
It takes a while to warm up. The desire to look good, or at least the fear of looking stupid, and the desire to express can often run contrary to each other when dancing in public. By the last hour good circulation and necessary courage have taken a toll similar to intoxication, and I’m able to let the music run through me. The hips come out, but so too does the boy that I’ve been practicing, though he is usually untraceable in the flow of energies; sometimes I am sexually assertive, letting a wave movement roll from chest to hips, sometimes dominant, taking a girl who has come up to dance with me and spinning her under my arm. The best moments come when I have truly let go of any care for how I look, and no barrier exists between my inner intention and my outer representation. The resulting honesty meets with the sense of community – God dictating the music, a few friends and strangers alike in mutual exertion, all with smiles towards each other. Here, in the simple act of dancing, can be found the heart of performance: to have desperately honest moments witnessed, and thus authenticated. Proof given to the world becomes proof given to oneself. Through the joy of dancing I become real.
When the last song has ended and the stragglers have reluctantly dispersed, my heart still beats with a strength I can feel in my fingers, and I carry the slowing rhythm of my thoughts into the cold of the early morning: I know who I am, I know who I am, I know who I am.
Elsewhere, behind curtains and in apartment bathrooms, Francesca, Aquasha, Miss Pretty, Claudia, and all the rest, wash off their makeup and shut away chandelier earrings, peel off stockings and lift away wigs; drag kings unbind their breasts and scrub away the sideburns. All return to life in between shows.